"Stunning" - THE POISON KEEPER by Deborah Swift - Interview

We are thrilled to share with you Deborah Swift's The Poison Keeper, "based on the legendary life of Italian poisoner Giulia Tofana."

THE POISON KEEPER by Deborah Swift

The Poison Keeper

Naples 1633

Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.

Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.

Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.

The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.

Based on the legendary life of Italian poisoner Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.


In the author's words . . .

Q&A with Deborah Swift

Do you believe in the concept of a muse? What is yours like?

I love classical mythology, so yes I do believe in the concept of a Muse, but mine doesn’t always come when called! I like the idea of having one, because it allows me to expand into a space beyond myself, and in my best moments of writing, I feel like my words are propelled by something beyond myself. In the classical Greek tradition the Muses brought people forgetfulness of pain as well as inspiration, and it can be painful trying to force myself through thorny plot problems. She sometimes shows up then, just when I’m about to tear my hair out trying to think of a solution.

To make my Muse show up, I have to sit in front of my computer every morning and apply words to a page. She is most likely to appear when I have had a good amount of uninterrupted time, and when I’m the least stressed by deadlines or by other things in my working life that I need to attend to.

Enjoying tea | Deborah Swift

If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?

Definitely learn to type and develop better computer skills. I’m of an age where these things weren’t taught in schools, so I have taught myself, and the result is that I have some very idiosyncratic ways of doing things. Like four finger typing, saving everything on multiple sticks and emailing myself with my day’s words as my ‘back-up’. I’m quite distrustful of technology, and don’t use things like ‘Grammarly’ or ‘Scrivener’ or any other editing software to aid my writing process other than a Word document.

You might not think lack of these skills would affect the quality of words on the page, but it does affect the quantity, because my mind often works quicker than my hands. Also I can spend a long time organizing files or trying to find stuff in my slightly disorganized ‘system’!

What has been your greatest pleasure in writing The Poison Keeper?

I’ve loved being able to travel to Italy in my imagination, because I’ve actually been at home for much of the last year. It was fantastic to have an excuse to watch travel videos of Palermo and Naples, to imagine drinking wine and eating polenta in a small tavern, and to conjure up the adventures of my main character in that setting. I enjoyed researching the poisons used by the poison keeper, and now have a rather sinister library of books on wicked plants and evil herbs.

One of the other things I really enjoyed was researching the sumptuary (clothing) laws of the time, and although this doesn’t feature over-much in the novel, it helped to give me a sense of grounding to know what Giulia Tofana would have been wearing. It was incredibly fascinating to read inventories of marriage chests and bequests from wills and see how little even the richest people owned, in comparison to today.

Research books for THE POISON KEEPER | Deborah Swift

Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

I do a little of each. I work to an initial outline of a few pages of A4 paper, handwritten. Once I’ve begun writing, at about the 30% stage I type up the outline in a bit more detail because by then I’ve started to know my characters. After that, I just go along with the flow. I’m aware of structure as I write and know my natural length for a book is about 120,000 words (400+pages). Recently shorter books have become more popular so I am trying to shorten my stories, which leads me to be very aware of word count when I’m working. Juggling practical considerations with story considerations is something all writers have to do – to somehow squash their expanding story into its small box.

I do a lot of editing as I go, circling back to the beginning of the story and adding or taking away. I write often from multiple points of view so it is important for character (a) to be doing something else interesting during character (b)’s scene, so those often need to be inserted later. If I had to describe it, it would be like sculpting the novel, rather than writing linearly from beginning to end.

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

I don’t know if I’ve actually evolved, but I hope so. I’m really passionate about the craft of writing and I love to blog about it and I teach and mentor other people who want to be writers. Occasionally I look back at my earliest novel and I can see the raw enthusiasm in it, which in later novels has been replaced with a more careful crafting, and I wonder if I’ve learnt anything at all! But if anything, the one thing I’ve learned is that every type of style can be good, and there is no right or wrong method for any of it. The key thing is to be aware of the effect that the words have on me as both a reader and a writer. I think I’ve become a more discerning reader, and that’s got to be good.

Books & Benches: Thank you, Deborah, for a delightful and insightful Q&A. Research does make all the difference, and you do it so well!


The Author

Author Deborah Swift

Deborah Swift is the author of three previous historical novels for adults, The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all published by Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!). Her first novel was shortlisted for the Impress prize for new novelists.

She lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.

For more information, please visit Deborah Swift’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


Genre: Historical Fiction

Type: Novel

Publisher: Quire Books

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Content Rating: PG-13

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Tour Giveaway

Enter to win a signed paperback copy or eBook of The Poison Keeper!

The giveaway is open internationally and ends on May 4, 2021. You must be 18 or older to enter. Void where prohibited by law. This giveaway is sponsored by the author and hosted by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

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